The fashion industry is sitting on a heaping pile of a problem. Over 14 million tons of clothing is either landfilled or incinerated every year, according to the EPA. It represents almost 6% of all solid waste in the U.S.
“It’s crazy when you think about volumes here,” Sarika Bajaj, co-founder and CEO of Refiberd, told TechCrunch+.
For many years, the best outcome for clothing that wasn’t donated to a thrift store (or didn’t make the cut there) was to become rags for industrial use. Even those eventually end up in the trash.
More recently, research into chemical recycling of textiles has been notching a series of successes, and companies have been working to commercialize the technology. But here again, they’re running into roadblocks. Each textile has a specific blend, and some come festooned with contaminants like buttons or embroidery. If a recycler’s chemical process is to work correctly, they have to know exactly what they’re putting into the mix.
That’s where Refiberd hopes to stitch up the gap. Bajaj and her co-founder, Tushita Gupta, founded the company three years ago to figure out a technical approach to solve this problem of sorting textiles to enable true textile-to-textile recycling.
Along the way, the industry caught up. “This seems to be a real problem,” Bajaj said. Accurately sorting textiles “is the main gap that everyone’s seeing in the industry.”
Sorting is challenging for a variety of reasons. For one, clothing comes in a range of different materials, and those materials are combined in a variety of different ways. Many today are blended with spandex to give consumers the stretchiness they desire. Others come with multiple layers of different materials — think of a nylon-lined wool blazer, for example.
For a recycler, those blends and mixes pose challenges. Chemical recycling processes all use different approaches. Some are more tolerant of contaminants than others, but a few kinds of textiles can really gum up the works. Spandex is high on the list.